-3-

The entire faculty of Harvard College in 1856 numbered only fourteen men, including the President of the University, who was then James Walker. Yet within that small company of scholars there were men whose energy and ideas are still felt among the best influences on higher education in America. Benjamin Peirce, to whom the teaching of natural science at Harvard owed so much, was a member of the faculty at that time. So too was Charles William Eliot, the man who would in later years guide Harvard's development as it grew to be one of the world's great institutions of learning. But in 1856 Eliot was stlll only a Tutor in Mathematics who had himself graduated from Harvard College just three years earlier. Another, older member of the faculty of fourteen was Eliot's forerunner as Tutor in Mathematics, Francis James Child (Harvard 1846). Professor Child had given up teaching numbers to become in 1851 the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, and it was while he occupied this chair that he began the study of oral literature at Harvard.

A faculty of fourteen men in a college with an enrollment of 382 undergraduates was not so large that any member of the faculty could give himself exclusively to his own intellectual pursuits. Still, it was large enough for this one man, Francis Child, to begin a forty-year career dedicated to study and publication of the so-called "popular" ballads of Britain.

Francis James Child

Professor Child, the former mathematician, came to his consummate interest in what he variously called "popular," "primitive," or "traditional" balladry not by accident but by force of logic. His valedictory address in 1846 to his own graduating class at Harvard College shows how absorbed and how extraordinarily skilled in the arts of expression he was even then. He was a right choice to be Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory in later years. Child well understood how indispensable good writing and good speaking are to civilization, or as many would now prefer to say, to society. For him, writing and speaking were not only the practical means by which men share useful information, but also the means whereby they formulate and share values, including the higher order of values that give meaning to life and purpose to human activities of all sorts. Concerned as he thus so greatly was with rhetoric, oratory, and the motives of those mental disciplines, Child was inevitably drawn into pondering the essential differences between speech and writing, and to searching for the origins of thoughtful expression in English.

  • next page

    continue